Interview with Dorothy N. Gamble and Marie Weil, authors of Community Practice Skills: Local to Global Perspectives

The following is an interview with Dorothy N. Gamble, Clinical Associate Professor Emerita at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill School of Social Work and Marie Weil, Berg-Beach Distinguished Professor of Community Practice at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill School of Social Work. They are the authors of Community Practice Skills: Local to Global Perspectives

Question: What is “community practice” and who actually does it?

Dorothy N. Gamble and Marie Weil: Community practice is the work of building the capacities of community members and community institutions to help them collectively take action to improve their quality of life.  The community may be a local geographic place, part of an extended region, a local or national interest group, or even a global group working for improved social, economic, and environmental conditions.  People who do community practice can be local community leaders, social workers, public health workers, agricultural and home extension workers, community educators, people working in microfinance and village banking, or a variety of other positions. Community practice involves a variety of facilitative activities to help community members and community institutions in their efforts to improve their social, economic and environmental well-being.

There are examples of efforts to build community capacity all over the world.  Building community capacity and community networks in Kenya, for example, has resulted in the planting of thirty million trees. Wangari Maathai who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 started this community work in Kenya more than thirty years ago. She used the need to replant trees as the entry point for community work that would focus people on self-determination, equity, environmental conservation, justice, and poverty education. Her Greenbelt Movement was so successful that community networks now care for six thousand tree nurseries across Kenya and have begun to organize community groups with the same focus in neighboring countries.

Village banking and microcredit are examples of organizing local groups, mostly women, to increase household income. Members of those groups who generally start small businesses have no collateral and therefore no access to credit in traditional banks. Village banking, which started decades ago in Bangladesh through Grameen Bank and BRAC and in Peru through FINCA, has assisted many low-wealth families on every continent in the world to increase their household income. These programs, which organize small groups of borrowers based on trust, usually provide guidance for small businesses, help the groups to learn good planning and management practices, and sometimes engage with groups as they build community infrastructure such as schools, health clinics, knitting cooperatives, cheese-making cooperatives, bakeries, roof tile factories, and other institutions that contribute to community well-being.

In the United States there are many examples of community practice from local planning and action strategies to nation wide campaigns for improved policies and resources that can advance basic living conditions.  Beginning in the 1970’s wages did not keep pace with the increase in the cost of living.  The policy of keeping the minimum wage abysmally low provides cheap labor, however it forces many households to work double jobs just to keep up with housing, transportation, health and food needs of a family.  In 1994 through the efforts of broad-based municipal organizing Baltimore, Maryland passed the first “living wage” ordinance, a wage based on the cost of living for that region.  Since then many communities have been successful in forming broad coalitions of grassroots organizations representing religious, health, educational, civil rights, LGBT, developmental disabilities, immigrant’s and women’s groups for the purpose of passing local living wage ordinances.  Children are particular beneficiaries of such progressive policies. 

Q: This book seems to focus particular attention on the values of human rights and social justice.  Why are these values important to community practice?

DNG & MW: Social justice and human rights are the central values to guide practice that seeks to help marginalized people or populations to move from deprivation and discrimination to full civic participation and from a survival status to human flourishing. Human rights and social justice will be of increasing significance in the twenty-first century because of many changes affecting communities throughout the world.  These changes include the effects of globalization, both the good and bad effects; the increase in multicultural societies because of the forced and voluntary movements of populations across borders and far from their geographic and cultural roots; and, the focus in all societies on human rights, especially the renewed activity and literature converging on the rights of women and children, especially girls.

These issues will require community practice workers to be knowledgeable and skilled in facilitating, mediating, coaching, advocating, training, organizing, planning, and building bridges with community groups. Engaging in these roles helps community members identify and acquire needed resources, changes in programs, policies, and conditions that contribute to stronger families and healthy communities. Inevitably communities will be challenged by the negative effects of globalization, the conflicts from divergent cultural perspectives, and the barriers to achieving human rights and social justice. The skill of capacity building on the part of community practice workers will help community members effectively engage with these challenges.

Human rights for women and girls are of particular importance for this century. UNIFEM reports, for example, that violence is the major cause of death and disability for women and girls between the ages of sixteen and forty-four. In the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the cost of intimate partner violence for medical/health care and loss of productivity is nearly $six billion a year. Violence and discrimination against women not only affects them personally, it also affects family stability, nurturing and care of children, and the development of community capacity because women contribute major leadership to building community organizations. In addition to these reasons, it should be noted that we write from a professional social work perspective where the values of social justice (which relate to fairness and equality) and human rights (which relate to opportunities and the capabilities to engage in opportunities) are basic values that guide our work.

Q: Is there actually guidance for community practice and a set of skills that can be adapted to transfer from small local to broad global settings?

DNG & MW: We provide an extensive discussion of eight different models of community practice that we believe best represent the range of strategies and skills that can be used in a wide variety of settings. The models should not be considered recipes for intervention but rather ideal types that can help the community practice worker determine the desired outcomes, scope of concern on the part of the community, systems that need to change and appropriate roles for the worker in a particular situation. Naturally each opportunity for community practice must be analyzed based on these characteristics to determine what type or mix of types might be most helpful to the goals of community members.

Citizen involvement, which is always essential in community practice, helps the community practice worker learn about the cultural and political context, the history of the issues to be confronted, how the issues are framed by different people inside and outside the community, and the assets available within and outside the community for bringing about change. This kind of analysis can be done with people in any community, large or small, in any part of the globe.

We have identified five primary roles and fifteen related roles that will help community practice workers build their knowledge base, make good judgments for ethical and effective intervention, and practice the range of skills needed to do this work. An accompanying workbook, designed for work in the classroom or with community organizations, will play a role in helping community practice workers hone their knowledge, judgment, and skill base for this work.

Q: Social work is sometimes not recognized for its role in community practice. Is it possible to get a social work degree and actually work in the exciting kinds of community change activities you describe in this book?

DNG & MW: It is most definitely possible for social workers to specialize in a range of community practice arenas (e.g., macro practice, community development, policy practice and advocacy, program development and social administration, community-based social planning, community organization) in graduate schools of social work in the U.S. and abroad. In many nations community practice is the predominant type of social work and is the primary focus of social work education. The value of a social work degree for this work is that the community worker will always be grounded in a set of professional values, understand the centrality of relationship building and community building, and have access to a broad range of practice and research literature that can guide their work. In addition, social work community practitioners will be able to identify and know how to connect people with resources, programs, or services they might need and participate in national and international organizations that provide continuing opportunities for discussion and comparison of effective interventions.

Many community leaders and people who do not have graduate degrees in social work have become well known for their success in community practice (e.g., Mohandas Gandhi, Paulo Freire, Myles Horton, Saul Alinsky, Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King Jr., Vandana Shiva, Wangari Maathai, Winona LaDuke, and Barack Obama, among others), and their work is identified in our book. In our view, social workers who specialize in community practice have the advantage of a combined academic and practical preparation gained through course work and field placements at a masters’ level. During this time, they have the opportunity to integrate the values, knowledge, and skills expected in professional social work. A number of special training institutes are available in the U.S. for community practice workers, based on particular models of organizing (e.g. Industrial Areas Foundation—IAF, PICO—faith-based organizing, Public Agenda—builds knowledge and understanding about issues, Highlander Center—peace and social justice work, among others). These are short-term, targeted training institutes that are good for learning specific approaches, but they do not provide the deeper and broader knowledge acquired in graduate social work programs with a specialization in community practice.

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